Sometimes I’m convinced that Dinosaurs was just a fever dream. A four-season, 65-episode-long fever dream about clunky dinosaur puppets going through the motions of a typical human family. The bumbling father is a Megalosaurus who works a blue-collar job while his Allosaurus wife stays home to tend to housework. Their children grapple with puberty, homework, and crushes. They also train humans to do tricks and secretly experiment with eating vegetables. To put it bluntly: Dinosaurs is a show so weird that it shouldn’t have existed. It’s been 20 years since Dinosaurs aired its bizarrely depressing series finale, but it still remains the strangest — and funniest — approach to the family sitcom.
If you don’t remember Dinosaurs, here’s the brief description: Think of any family sitcom, particularly a ’90s ABC sitcom, and replace the humans with dinosaurs. That’s it! The basic concept was originated by Jim Henson three years before the show was actually created; he died about a year before the first episode premiered in 1991. According to his son, Jim Henson “wanted it to be a sitcom with a pretty standard structure, with the biggest differences being that it’s a family of dinosaurs and their society has this strange toxic life style.” The result was a unique, sublime retelling of typical family dynamics and adolescent situations, and a TV Tropes dream.
The show often used a Very Special Episode format to tackle issues like drug experimentation and puberty, and made creative references to subjects like race and homosexuality. It was heavy for a family-friendly show — I was far too young during its original run to understand any of that, but even during its later syndication years, about 70 percent of it went over my head. Watching it now, it’s amazing how meta and overt all the references are.
In one episode, “A New Leaf,” teen son Robbie eats a plant and discovers that it makes him very happy and lazy. Soon his father and sister are eating the plant, too, and they stop going to school and work, the house goes to hell, and the mother forbids them from ever touching the plant again. It’s a great send-up of the hysterically escalating nature of anti-drug episodes. At the end, in a hilarious meta moment, Robbie turns to the camera to give a PSA on the dangers of drugs. But even that trope is subverted; he instead talks about an epidemic threatening TV comedies: “When one show does an anti-drug episode, other shows feel pressured to do one, too.” He urges viewers to not do drugs in order to “help put a stop to preachy sitcom endings like this one.” The moment becomes even funnier when you remember that Dinosaurs was on ABC’s TGIF lineup, where many shows — Boy Meets World, Full House — relied on these preachy episodes.
The show got the most mileage of out of the typical “pains of growing up” sitcom conventions, using clever prehistoric stand-ins. The tail Charlene grows overnight (and her father Earl’s discomfort about it) was a clear stand-in for breasts; in lieu of erections, Robbie found himself unable to stop doing the “Mating Dance,” resulting in an awkward scene when his mother walks in on him.
But the most impressive thing about Dinosaurs is that now, 20 years after its July 20, 1994 finale, the show doesn’t just hold up — it has somehow gotten better. It’s one of those children’s shows that actually gets smarter as you grow up and revisit it (the entire series is streaming on Netflix, though some episodes are out of order or mislabeled). One of the show’s best episodes is Season 2’s “What ‘Sexual Harris’ Meant,” which depicts rape culture in an intelligent, accurate, and even funny way. When Monica begins working at Earl’s job, she is repeatedly subjected to suggestive comments (again, with a weird dinosaur slant: “Later on, I’ll jump on your scales and you can tell me how much I weigh, if you know what I mean”). She turns him down, he fires her, and she takes him to court.
During the trial, she’s asked about what she was wearing that day, and even what kind of underwear she’s currently wearing. The defense damages her character. Fran tries to testify on Monica’s behalf but is shut down by a lawyer who accuses of her living, unwed, with an older man years ago; the man was her father. It’s brutally and uncomfortably funny but shockingly realistic for a show featuring dino puppets. She even loses the case at the end. Adding to the bleak humor, an optimistic young Charlene closes the episode by saying, “I think we can get males to treat us like equals. We’re an advanced society. How long can this take?” Of course, Dinosaurs takes place in 60,000,003 BC.
Unfortunately, the show was expensive to maintain, and the ratings weren’t high enough to justify the cost. The 1994 finale, “Changing Nature,” which is heavy on environmentalism, gave the series a satisfying (if not happy) ending. Earl’s company screws up the ecosystem, and Earl’s attempt to fix it goes so horribly wrong that he ends up bringing on the ice age that presumably killed all the dinosaurs. In the show’s final moments, the entire earth is covered in ice as the family members sit together in their house, waiting to freeze to death. It’s the most traumatizing and devastating sitcom finale I’ve ever seen. For four seasons, Dinosaurs was the most unique program that television had to offer, and a flawless parody of family-oriented shows. In the 20 years since it ended, we’ve still seen nothing like it.